How many recordings are released every day, globally and how many of those musicians have their own unique sound? Sometimes it seems like an increase in creation just leads to a decrease in variety, so the truly original artists clearly stand out from the crowd. Iceland’s Mùm is one of those groups, seemingly constructing their own musical universe, recording by recording. Finally We Are No One (2002) and Summer Make Good (2004) were involving albums which took dreamy electronics, the placid mood of ambient music, a film score’s majestic sweep, and playful melody and combined them into a strange and beautiful style of atmospheric pop music.
The disparate sounds they layer together come off as genuinely imaginative, while the lyrical and titular allusions to ghosts, water, and space accentuate the musical echoes of both the natural world and fantasy ones, while giving the feeling that you’re floating, transcending, being transported. And their melodies and textures themselves carry emotional weight, suggestive of life and death and the changing of the seasons.
That’s as true of their mostly instrumental 2000 debut album, Yesterday Was Dramatic Today Is OK, as it is of their more recent two albums, which feature more conventional song structures and much more of Kristìn Anna Valtysdòttir’s unconventional singing voice. Yesterday… — recently reissued by the like-minded German electronic label Morr Music - stands as the blueprint for the Mùm sound, presenting in full color the style that they’ve been mutating and growing in interesting directions ever since.
Despite the sadness and gravity that often lurks inside their songs, each successive Mùm album brings out more critics who claim the group’s music is childish, too “twee” or delicate. Those assertions were absent back in 2000, when Mùm received praise as cutting-edge electronic experimentalists, though the basic tenor of Mùm’s music hasn’t drastically changed since then. The odd brittleness of Valtysdòttir’s voice seems to present a block to some critics, who can’t hear what’s past it, can’t get to the mystical forest of sounds and textures built around it. Yesterday… makes occasional use of voice as an accent mark to the ample melodies, yet it’s mostly instrumental: a rich, epic-length array of moods and melodies, textures and sounds.
“I’m 9 Today” kicks off the album with a warm tapestry of crackling rhythms and melodic tones. It instantly sets up a gently energetic mood that carries through the album. Mùm are experts at creating a calming mood, yet Yesterday‘s sound is never static. A sense of forward motion is crafted through the way styles merge naturally. A music-box lullaby glides into a soaring dreamscape/sing-along on “There Is a Number of Small Things”. Pounding drums add heightened suspense to the ghostly “Asleep on a Train”. “The Ballad of the Broken String” sounds almost like an Astor Piazzolla tango at times, though it also crackles like a Pole album and picks up a shifty pace near the end. “Sunday Night Just Keeps on Rolling” unfolds slowly and gracefully, in spirit highlighting the commonality between Mùm and fellow Icelanders/sometimes-collaborators Sigur Ròs (a mutual admiration that group made crystal-clear on their latest, Takk…). But the song also contains powerful drum n’ bass blasts, and hovers puzzlingly in unknown territory at times.
Mùm populate their songs with a variety of sounds and textures, frequently generating real surprise. Their sound is inclusive - they seem willing to try any instrument, any sound-making device to see what effect they can get. Yet it all coheres into one distinct overarching style, built on tune and atmosphere and feeling. They use melody in a circuitous yet incisive way, where you don’t feel like they’re delivering a hook straight to you, yet as you listen you’re overwhelmed by compelling melodies, often seeming to arise from nowhere. Yesterday…, like their other albums, evokes the feeling of being awake in a dream, or dreaming through life. Yet it never sounds complacent, and rarely stands still. It feels like a living, breathing entity, one seeking new adventures and continually evolving in exciting ways. Dreamers, naturalists, and fantasy writers, Mùm nonetheless are creating music that offers tangible pleasures, that appeals to the visceral side of listeners, not just the imagining side. There’s an immediacy to Yesterday that makes it feel like it was recorded today, even though it’s five years old, a lifetime in today’s mile-a-minute world.